In two previous posts I’ve looked at different versions of panspermia, the idea that life may have originated elsewhere in our Galaxy and may have travelled to our planet early in its formation, giving rise to all of the life we see on Earth today.
In post 1 I introduced the idea, and looked at how simple bacterial life could travel to the Earth, and in post 2 I looked at some more extreme versions of panspermia, including the idea that intelligent aliens could have deliberately seeded the Earth with life.
You may have also seen in the news recently that a NASA scientist called Richard Hoover has claimed he has found fossilized bacteria in a number of meteorites.
What does this mean for panspermia? Unfortunately, probably not much. Find out why…
Richard Hoover works for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and he claims to have found fossilized cyanobacteria (photosynthetic bacteria) in 3 carbonaceous chondrite meteorites called Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil, by using two emission scanning electron microscopy techniques. He published his paper in the Journal of Cosmology on the 5th of March 2011. You can read it here.
The evidence he presents is morphological (the shape of the fossils) and chemical (the atomic content of the fossils).
Here’s one of the images, the fibrous strands are the proposed fossil cyanobacteria:
Here’s a close-up of one of the fossils, Hoover claims it resembles a species of cyanobacteria called Titanospirillum velox:
Surely this is great news for panspermia?
OK, the bacteria aren’t alive, they’re fossilized, but at one time the bacteria in these meteorites must have been living, and importantly, these meteorites were never part of a planet, they likely formed out of the Solar Nebula (the cloud of gas and dust) from which the Earth formed. This means that life must have been present in space at the time the Earth coalesced; therefore this life must have come from a different solar system.
Evidence of panspermia?
Unfortunately this probably isn’t the case. Hoover has not proved conclusively that these structures are fossils, they could be a number of things, including inorganic minerals or even artefacts created by the techniques used. You may be thinking how could these images possibly be inorganic minerals, as minerals are crystals and don’t look anything like organic structures. Well how about this?
These are images and drawings of structures found in a rock called the Apex Chert. They were thought to be fossilized bacteria and amongst the earliest life on Earth at around 3.5 billion years old. However they were much disputed, with some scientists claiming they were inorganic, and a recent paper in Nature has revealed these organic-looking structures are actually fractures in the rock that had filled with a mixture of haematite and quartz minerals, so they are totally inorganic. The paper is here, and an easier to read description is here. These structures have been extensively analysed by multiple teams of scientists before it could be confirmed what they were.
So why can’t we rule-out the alternatives of fibrous minerals or technique artefacts from this analysis?
Because Hoover published his work in a fake journal. The Journal of Cosmology is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal, despite its claims, it’s a website that publishes a few magazines and advertises some books. Take a look at the site, its extremely amateur looking, a bit like some of the crazy 2012 websites. A few scientists are involved with the ‘journal’, including its Executive Editor the astrobiologist Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. But this does not make it a real journal, it’s more like a personal blog pretending to be a journal, oh, and also a site to advertise the aforementioned books, some co-written by the Executive Editor Chandra Wickramasinghe himself. It’s all extremely dodgy.
But Hoover works for NASA right? NASA wouldn’t support spurious claims in a fake journal?
Hoover does work for NASA, but this paper wasn’t published or endorsed by NASA, they didn’t even know it had been submitted to the ‘Journal’ of Cosmology. Here’s a NASA press statement about it:
“NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts… NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication.”
If extraterrestrial life was discovered, even fossilized, this would be huge, one of the greatest scientific discoveries mankind could make. We’d have confirmation that we weren’t alone in the Universe. Such a find would be submitted to a proper, and one of the most prestigious scientific journals, like Nature, where Hoover would have to give a great amount of detail about how he prepared the samples, how he ensured they and his instruments were sterile, and would have to give exhaustive detail of the analyses he used.
However he didn’t do this. Not enough information is given on his methods, and he paper itself is rambling, confusing, and full of irrelevant information. I won’t go into the details of this, as I’m not a scientist myself (yet), but several blogs have done this, these are the best two I’ve found so far; RRResearch and pharyngula.
I’m not quite sure why Hoover has made these claims, but its not the first time. He’s previously claimed to have found fossilized bacteria in the Murchison meteorite (see previous post) and to have found fossils in the Orgueil meteorite on two previous occasions, in 2004 and 2007. Maybe Hoover is hoping to make money or a name for himself from these claims? I doubt it though, as surely this kind of behaviour will jeopardize his career. Maybe he truly believes he’s found proof of alien life and for some reason he feels he can’t publish his proof in a real journal.
Either way, the evidence just isn’t good enough to prove that this is extraterrestrial life, and the way in which Hoover has published his work is deeply suspicious, unfortunately.